It ought to go without saying that people choose a radio station based on the quality of its content. History has shown that radio stations with better content beat stations with poorer content.
If you had any doubt, recent rating trends should erase any question.
And the implication is clear: Stations that have cut programming costs by cheapening their product will ultimately pay a significant price for their actions.
In January of this year Rush Limbaugh switched affiliates in New York and Los Angeles. In each case, Limbaugh left the leading News-Talk station and moved to a much weaker competitor.
Now with six months of PPM data we can see what happened. In both instances the stations that added Limbaugh benefited, and the stations that lost Limbaugh took major ratings hits.
Lose an important programming element that draws listeners to the station and you’ll likely lose listeners. If your competitor capitalizes on the change, perhaps by hiring a key personality you let go, you could ulitimately pay for it.
We created an 6+ share index based on station ratings in the fourth quarter of 2013 before the switch. We then calculated how ratings have changed since Limbaugh switched.
Indexing this way enables us to easily compare rating trends across markets. All stations start at 100. An increase to 200 means a station’s share has doubled, 300 tripled, and so on.
An index that moves below 100 means the station has lost share. An index of 33 means that the station only has a third of its original audience. Put another way, an index of 33 means the station has lost two thirds of its listeners.
In Los Angeles, KFI has drifted down and stands at an idex of 78. That tranlates into a loss of about half a share point. The station has been a dominant News-Talk station for years, and it remains so, but even it took a hit from the departure of Limbaugh.
Given PPM’s rating compression, a half share loss can add up to a three or four station rank decline.
KEIB, Limbaugh’s new home, saw immediate gains. The station now indexes at 265. While it still ranked well below KFI, KEIB has seen its full week AQH nearly double, and Limbaugh’s time-slot numbers nearly triple. (All comparisons are based on three month averages to smooth out wobbles.)
We should note that Clear Channel owns both KFI and KEIB, so the move was made for strategic reasons. The fact remains, however, that the group's flag-ship News-Talk station took a hit.
In New York the changes have been much more dramatic.
WABC lost a quarter of its 6+ AQH in the first month without Limbaugh, and has continued to lose listeners virtually every month since.
Today the station indexes at 35, indicating that two thirds of the station's quarter-hours have evaporated since the beginning of 2014.
WOR closed out 2013 with about half the quarter-hour persons of WABC. Today the station indexes at 370, suggesting that the station share is nearly four times its pre-Limbaugh level.
After years of consistently trailing WABC, WOR is now essentially tied with WABC in full-week AQH. During Limbaugh’s time-slot WOR has tripled its numbers and bests WABC by a significant margin.
Of course WOR also acquired Sean Hannity, and WABC made several personality changes in addition to adding Limbaugh, but these additional factors do not change the lesson:
It matters in every format, in every competitive situation. Listeners have options, more than ever. They will not remain loyal to stations that stop delivering on expectations.
Too many broadcast leaders have decided that cheaper trumps better, that downgrading the product to squeeze a little more profit out of local radio is good business.
The next quarter’s bottom line might look a little better, but the lessons of what’s happened in New York and Los Angeles suggest that the gains are short lived. The negative long term implications will long remain after the momentary bump in profit is forgotten.